TAMPA, Fla. — Earlier this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted a major milestone in the state's ongoing battle against the coronavirus.
"By the end of the month, a COVID vaccine will have been offered to every resident and staff member at all of Florida's 4,000 long-term care facilities, which is really really good," DeSantis told reporters.
Seniors 65 and older account for 80% of the state's deaths from the virus, which is why those who live and work in nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been the governor's vaccine priority.
But there's a problem. Most employees in these facilities are choosing not to get the shot, and lawmakers are taking notice.
During a pandemic response committee meeting in Tallahassee on Thursday, Florida State Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami asked Florida's Division of Emergency Management Director what the rejection rate is.
"We don't have all the data to understand how big the problem is, but there's no doubt there are rejection rates," Director Jared Moskowitz said.
Roughly 200,000 employees work in nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state. Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration, which governs long-term care centers in the state and helps coordinate vaccine efforts among residents and staff in facilities, didn't provide answers when we asked about staff rejection rates. Instead, an agency spokesperson referred us to the meeting between lawmakers and Moskowitz.
During the meeting, Moskowitz estimated where the numbers stand.
"In long-term care facilities and nursing homes, we see 70% of residents want it [the vaccine] but only 30% of the staff," Moskowitz told lawmakers.
The state's short-range plan on increasing those numbers appears to rest on second doses, which will start being provided to residents and staff next week.
"I'm willing to bet you when we do go back for those second shots, there will be people that say, 'Well, Sylvia got the shot, she's fine, I’ll get it.' We're going to see that number go up. We're going to see staff that the 30% of staff that got it, they're fine, they'll get the shot," Moskowitz told lawmakers.
"Sometimes it's religious, sometimes it could be just hearsay. There's a lot of different reasons why a staff person is reluctant to get the vaccine,” said Gail Matillo, director of Florida’s Senior Living Association.
She's also hopeful that when second doses start being administered in facilities, reluctant staff will be encouraged by the outcomes and feel better about getting their first dose.
Industry associations have engaged concerned staff in education campaigns, one-on-one meetings. Some facilities have started offering staff a day off when they get the vaccine. Others are resorting to offering staff members incentives, including gift cards in exchange for a shot in the arm. Vaccine reluctancy among staff at long-term care centers is not isolated to Florida but remains a challenge in facilities across the country.
Matillo said while there has been talk of mandating shots for staff of long term care centers, there are concerns that forcing shots could leave some employees to quit, further exacerbating staff shortages at some facilities.
For now, the industry and state leaders are waiting to see how the first rounds of second doses go and if a welcome byproduct is an increase in staff yet to receive their first dose.
"I really feel hopeful about it," Matillo said.